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Labor in the Twenty-First Century: The Top 0.1% and the Disappearing Middle-Class

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The ongoing explosion of the incomes of the richest households and the erosion of middle-class employment opportunities for most of the rest have become integrally related in the now-normal operation of the U.S. economy.

Since the beginning of the 1980s, employment relations in U.S. industrial corporations have undergone three major structural changes – summarized as “rationalization,” “marketization,” and “globalization” – that have permanently eliminated middle-class jobs in the United States. From the early 1980s, rationalization, characterized by plant closings, terminated the jobs of high-school educated blue-collar workers, most of them well-paid union members. From the early 1990s, marketization, characterized by the end of acareer with one company as an employment norm, placed the job security of middle-aged white collar workers, many of them college educated, in jeopardy. From the early 2000s, globalization, characterized by the movement of employment offshore to lower-wage nations, left all members of the U.S. labor force, whatever their educational credentials and work experience, vulnerable to displacement. Initially, these structural changes in employment could be justified as business responses to changes in technologies, markets, and competitors. Once U.S. corporations transformed their employment relations, however, they often pursued rationalization, marketization, and globalization to cut current costs rather than to reposition themselves to produce competitive products. Defining superior corporate performance as ever-higher quarterly earnings per share, companies turned to massive stock repurchases to “manage” their own corporations’ stock prices. Trillions of dollars that could have been spent on innovation and job creation in the U.S. economy over the past three decades have instead been used to buy back stock for the purpose of manipulating stock prices. Legitimizing this financialized mode of corporate resource allocation has been the ideology, itself a product of the 1980s and 1990s, that a business corporation should be run to “maximize shareholder value.” Through their stock options and stock awards, corporate executives who make these resource-allocation decisions are themselves prime beneficiaries of the focus on rising stock prices as the sole measure of corporate performance. While rationalization, marketization, and globalization undermined stable and remunerative employment structures, the “financialization” of the U.S. corporation entailed the distribution of corporate cash to shareholders through stock repurchases, often in addition to generous cash dividends, and, incentivizing these distributions, the stock-based remuneration of top corporate executives. In this essay, I review evidence on the fundamental structural changes related to rationalization, marketization, and globalization that, since the early 1980s, have eroded U.S. middle-class employment opportunities. Then, I analyze how, in many different ways and in many different industries, the financialized mode of corporate resource allocation has undermined the prosperity of the U.S. economy. I go on to show how justified by the ideology that companies should be run to “maximize shareholder value,” this financialized behavior boosts the remuneration of top corporate executives, providing a major explanation for the increasing concentration of income among the top 0.1% of U.S. households that is, through the very way it is achieved, based on the systematic destruction of middle-class employment opportunities available to members of the U.S. labor force.